The Bucket List – Promises I Make Today

Posted October 26, 2023

By Greg O'Brien

“I envy people who have faith. I just can’t get my head around it…”—Jack Nicholson

“Maybe because your head’s in the wrong way!”—Morgan Freeman

The Bucket List

At times, most of us have our heads in the wrong place.

Put that on steroids for those with Alzheimer’s, other forms of dementia, and depression. We often just can’t get our heads around life. Yet, it has nothing to do with faith if one pursues it.

Faith, I believe, is the glue that binds in good times and bad, and often inspires and transforms a bucket list—particularly in the serpentine valley of dementia where faith, hope, and humor are the lanterns.

I’ve learned a lot from the iconic film “The Bucket List,” more now than when I first saw this film about two terminally ill men who escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of “to-dos,” as the movie promotes. In the film, the two elderly men, both manifestly diverse—a working-class mechanic named Carter, played by Morgan Freeman, and a billionaire named Edward, played by Jack Nicholson—have been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Carter is a family man who wanted to teach history but chose instead a closer relationship with family. Edward, the polar opposite, was four times divorced and a loner.

The two find terra firma together after Carter, with less than a year to live, drafts a “to-do” list before he “kicks the bucket,” and Edward finds the list the following day, imploring Carter to bolt the hospital with him on an intrepid world “bucket list” journey. So they do, teaching one another about life. They both find peace as they cross “to-dos” off their lists.

Bucket lists are universal. We all have them. For starters, in the fantasy of my youth, I wanted to be a rock star, but the nuns told me in sixth grade that I couldn’t sing. “You’re pathetic, Gregory; you have the worst voice in the world!” said Sister Mary Floppy Habit (name changed to protect the guilty). She had chin hair…

Well, I thought in time, that I could become a ladies’ man. I was somewhat easy on the eyes but painfully shy when I asked high school girls for a date over the phone. I had to read from a cue card like Luca Brasi in The Godfather. “I am honored and grateful…I pledge my ever-ending loyalty!”

Click…on the other end.

So then I went on to sports, playing baseball in high school and college, thinking I could play someday in the Major Leagues. The only problem was I didn’t have the talent for it.

As I got older, my bucket lists changed in my haste for maturity. I loved to travel, particularly to Ireland, but never really had the money to go elsewhere.

Then, I hoped to write the great American novel, but my soul counseled, “Stay in your lane!” So I continued to write newspaper and magazine pieces.

You get the picture, particularly when life changes. And it did for me. I’m 73 now, and finding my way on a dementia road I never wanted to take.

I think Pulitzer Prize winning Carl Sandburg, the seminal poet, journalist, and editor was correct in some ways when he advised about bucket list changes over the years: “I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes, so live not in your yesterdays, nor just for tomorrow, but in the here and now.”

The here and now for millions of us diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, other dementias, and depression has changed dramatically, as it has for devoted caregivers. It’s challenging for me and others just to keep up with dizzying life transitions. For those in earlier stages, planning for the future and reflecting on the past is equally critical in finding some peace.

I’ve jettisoned the pity party with a vision to run these last laps with some grace and dignity—keeping my footing, though stumbling along the way. As I fight a gradual breakdown of my mind and body, a fog of numbness, the deep depression, and prostate cancer that’s hanging around, I’ve personally found over the years that the prize is not on earth, but in the clouds—Heaven, if you will.

As many in disease might relate to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

“I took the one less traveled by,

“And that has made all the difference.”

I was forced, like others, to take a road not commonly traveled, and it has made all the difference for me.

So what’s my bucket list today? It was altered by my disease and by the recent death of my 33-year-old son Conor, a family caregiver to me who passed away on July 10, 2022, of ongoing Grand Mal Seizures. I was there at the end. No parent should ever have to bury a child.

And so my bucket list today:

  • To advocate fiercely for a cure for Alzheimer’s, various dementias, and other mind-bending diseases, and to be Irish stubborn in the fight
  • To be a better father to daughter Colleen and son Brendan and a far better husband to my wife Mary Catherine
  • To never hate; always try to love in the purest sense of the word
  • Don’t judge; that’s for God
  • Understand better my many shortcomings and apologize when I’m wrong
  • To forgive more
  • To pray more
  • To drop fewer “F-bombs”
  • To never give up

All promises that I make today, knowing the imperfections of my promises.

My bucket list was reinforced on a recent Sunday in church. Pastor Joe Greemore at Brewster Baptist Church on Outer Cape Cod, a big tent church, as they say, with many Catholics and Protestant denominations, gave a sermon on “the importance of speaking wisely.”

In his sermon, Pastor Greemore told an apocryphal story about an ancient king who asked his chief food preparer of the day, a man of great faith, to prepare two meals for him—the best and the worst possible. After much thoughtful consideration, the king’s chief food preparer brought two covered meals to the throne. The King viewed first what was proclaimed to be the best—a meal of cooked tongue.

The angered king was apoplectic: “I told you to prepare the best meal,” he said. “Did you understand that?”

The chief food preparer then uncovered the worst meal. Again, a meal of prepared of cooked tongue.

“What’s this?” the king protested.

With great peace and confidence, the food preparer responded: “The tongue in life is the worst and can be the best. Depends on how one uses it.”

The king was speechless, overawed…

The tongue, I’ve learned, can be the difference between discernment and the iniquitous. And so I’ve added to my Bucket List: “Watch my tongue!”

It’s a big ask for me, as it is for most, but altogether wise.

Promises that I make today…Life refines when one least expects it.